The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

Updated 24 May 2018

The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

  • Hadi Ghandour takes a look at the nine Saudi entrants for this year’s Cannes Film Festival

‘Is Sumiyati Going to Hell?’
Meshal Aljaser
Actor, writer and director Meshal Aljaser’s “Is Sumiyati Going To Hell?” is a funny but biting story with a strong visual style told from the perspective of a child who witnesses her family’s inhuman treatment of their maid. 
“It was inspired by my five-year-old nephew, who asked my sister if his Christian maid is going to hell,” Aljaser explained. “And my sister didn’t answer him. I thought, ‘Why would a five year old think like this? You just started living! Why would you assume that this caring nice lady who takes care of you everyday is going to hell?’”
The daring film certainly tests boundaries, but Aljaser stressed it comes from good intentions: “I like to present what I feel and what I know is real. I’m really not aiming to make anyone angry, especially not the people who, in the end, I want to represent in a good way, like my government and my culture. I’m trying to express issues so we can face them and fix them."

Seba Alluqmani
“Alkaif” is a delightful documentary about coffee’s important social role in Saudi Arabia. “I wanted to make it because I’ve been living abroad for seven years and noticed that whenever I smell Arabian coffee I remember home, I remember gathering, and it’s in every single house on all occasions whether good or bad,” said Riyadh-based filmmaker Seba Alluqmani. “And so it’s something that we grow up noticing and knowing and drinking, but we don’t see it outside of its context.”
Alluqmani is particularly excited about the Saudi presence at Cannes this year: “I keep saying (Saudi is) the Kingdom of opportunities. Filmmakers are here, opportunities are here… the Kingdom is open for people to come and film and for their own talent to grow.”

‘Don’t Go Too Far’
Maram Taibah
Writer-director Maram Taibah’s gentle and sensitive film, “Don’t Go To Too Far,” is about a mentally challenged young Arab man who must find his way back home after being accidentally separated from his sister on the New York subway. It’s inspired by Taibah’s concern for her older brother, who has a mental disability: “I asked myself, how would he be able to manage in the world if he were ever left alone? What would happen?”
The low-budget short was shot over three days in New York. “The actor spent time with my brother and watched how he talked and dressed and walked and kind of emulated him,” Taibah explained. 
An avid writer since childhood, she cites Charles Dickens and JK Rowling as two of her influences: “I can see myself eventually working in fantasy. I like the bittersweet, human element in my stories. I like whimsy.”

‘Film School Musical’
Maan B. and Talha B. 
(NOTE: Just use pic of Maan B. as Talha B. has a later entry in this list, and you’ll need his pic for that)
Brothers Maan and Talha Bin Abdulrahman co-directed “Film School Musical,” a film that shows Murphy’s Law in full swing. Shot in long, choreographed takes and spoken in song, it’s the story of a film-school student struggling to make a film.
“It’s a parody of old Disney films, and at the same time we critique the inner world of the film student community, those funny frustrating moments we faced,” said Talha. Maan (pictured) added, “It’s my graduation film. I specialized in producing, I know a lot about the behind-the-scenes work, and there’s more drama that goes on there than on screen.” 
Maan cited Egar Wright as a reference: “In visual storytelling, he’s the king. He doesn’t say it, he just shows it.”

Ali Alkalthami
“Wasati” is based on the true story of an extremist attack on a theatre in Riyadh during a play about moderate Islam entitled “Wasati Bela Wastiah.” Ali Alkathami’s film has a distinct visual style as he depicts the day’s events through a variety of perspectives. “It’s a dark comedy tackling organized ideologies in Saudi Arabia,” he explained. “The public space of performance art and theatre in Riyadh was going through a gradual evolution, and that event kind of screwed with it.”
One of the perspectives is a surprisingly funny account of a man who learns he’s going blind. “We thought we needed to add a comedic release story in order not to create negative arguments.” Alkalthami added. “I’ve lived in this society for a long time and I’ve seen both sides of everything. We live in fear of others, and I think the lack of cinema and good shows enable that fear. You’re not seeing (a different) point of view or discussing it.”

‘Al Qatt’
Faisal Alotaibi
Faisal Alotaibi’s illuminating account of a unique and ancient artform — exclusively practiced by women in the Asiri region of Saudi Arabia — that involves decorating interior walls. “It’s a rare and singular art, and that interested me,” Alotaibi said. “I’m always drawn to stories that are insightful, informative and artistic, and all three are found in this story.”
The film first screened at Paramount studios as part of “Saudi Film Days” and has gone on to win prizes at the Short Documentary Film Festival in Rabat and at RIGA TourFilm Festival. “I’m always interested in working on true stories,” the filmmaker said. “I’m currently in post-production on another documentary about an annual festival that celebrates a seasonal fish.”

Musab Alamri 
“Coexistence” sensitively approaches a thorny topic: the Shia-Sunni divide. It centers on two college roommates, Nasser and Kalifa, whose bond is tested by sectarian differences. Ultimately, it’s a story about acceptance.
“I decided to make the film because, unfortunately, not many people in my country are brave enough to tackle these subjects,” said writer-director Musab Alamri. “Why are we shy about discussing our issues? We may be different, but it’s not fine if we don’t accept those differences.”
Musab has made eight short films as a director, writer and editor. “I believe as a director, if you have a vision, you must be engaged in all three.” He cited Tarantino and Spielberg as influences: “I’m a big fan of Hollywood. Let’s be honest, Hollywood is number one in the world.”

‘The Darkness is a Color’
Mujtaba Saeed
Mujtaba Saeed’s film is a moody, character-based short. On the surface, it is about a German hunter who delves into the depths of the Black Forest looking for his lost gundog. But there are layers underneath, too, which he approaches with poetic simplicity. 
“The film is more of a situation than a plot. It is ultimately about the crisis one faces when confronted with the shadow of ageing,” Saeed explained. He came up with the idea after an elderly hunter (with “racist tendencies”) took him on a trip into the forest. “He took me there from a sense of pride, to show me his kingdom and I became interested in discovering the effect of the forest on German characters.”
To achieve that, Saeed said he spent two weeks living in the Black Forest before making the movie.

‘The Scapegoat’
Talha B. 
Talha Bin Abdulrahman’s second entry is about the internal crises of a once-successful novelist who grapples with the fear of losing his creativity. American-Egyptian actor Ahmed Ahmed plays all four roles in the film: the writer and three personifications of his psyche. “My film is about writer’s block. But it’s also about the psychological process of writing,” Abdulrahman explained. “The main conflict is about a man dealing with aspects of himself, dealing with his ego. And this ego becomes manifested as people.” He listed Stephen King, Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan as the main inspirations behind his own storytelling.


The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

Updated 16 February 2019

The making of memories: Syrian artist Sara Naim uses material from her homeland to create striking abstract imagery

  • “Building Blocks”, Sara Naim's second solo show, runs until February 27
  • She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer

DUBAI: Nostalgia takes many forms. For the Syrian visual artist Sara Naim, those forms are jasmine, soil and Aleppo soap.

All three are central to her second solo exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, “Building Blocks” — which runs until February 27 — but not in the way you’d expect. 

Using a scanning electron microscope, Naim has captured the cellular structure of all three substances, magnified them, and mounted the resultant imagery on wood and plexiglass. She has also deliberately included glitches — formal distortions and light leaks — producing imagery so abstracted it is no longer recognizable. These abstract examinations create the wall works of the show and hint at the imperfection of memory, while in the midst of it all are a series of structures made from 4,000 bars of Aleppo soap.

“I think the idea of warping something that’s familiar into something foreign allows you to shift the viewer’s perspective and to reshape how they think of nostalgia,” says Naim, who was born in London, raised in Dubai, and currently lives in Paris. “Because nostalgia operates in a way that’s no longer linked to the original information. The memory of something changes the more time has elapsed and the more you think about it. You can also become consumed in thought and therefore lost in it. 

“You assume that the closer you come to something the more familiar it becomes, but actually you become more distant because it’s so abstracted. For example, some of these are looked at 50,000 times magnified, and at that scale you’re further from its truth.”

In many ways “Building Blocks” is as much about identity as it is about nostalgia. All three of the elements used by Naim may be familiar to her — the jasmine and soil are from her grandmother’s garden in Damascus — but the memories they trigger (through smell primarily) are also perceived as foreign. This is due to her international upbringing as much as it is to the conflict in Syria, which has kept her away from the country for the past eight years. 

“I’ve always said I’m Syrian,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m British, I don’t feel like I’m from Dubai. My blood is Syrian. I completely connect with the land and the people even though there’s an interesting acceptance issue in Syria. Because they don’t consider me to be Syrian really when I’m there and even if I meet a Syrian here or elsewhere they feel disconnected from me. And (vice-versa).

“I met a British woman recently who has a house in Damascus and she’s been going there for the past 20 years. She was telling me about the street that she lives on and where she goes and I didn’t even know those places. And it was such a shame for me to feel like I’m more removed from my country than an expat is. But it’s all the nature of circumstance.”

The exhibition is, in essence, a continuation of Naim’s wider body of work, which utilizes the transmission electronic microscope and the scanning electron microscope to create ‘abstract quasi-photographic imagery’. It’s a practice she says “dissects how proportion shapes our perception and notion of boundary.” 

She exists in a world far beyond the realm of classical photography and is often considered a visual artist rather than a photographer. It’s a point of classification that she herself has debated.

“I used to correct people when they introduced me as a photographer, hoping that ‘visual artist’ would give me more freedom,” she admits. “But actually embracing it as photographic allows me to enter into the very dialogue I want to be a part of. Why are cameras made with a rectangular frame? Why are prints framed the way they are? Why is photography considered two-dimensional when it fundamentally uses space and time? I have rid myself of those restrictions, but my work is still photographic.”

Naim is in the final stages of preparing for the exhibition when we meet. The soap has yet to arrive, the towers have yet to be built, but everything else appears to be in place. Although she looks tired, occasionally passing her hand through her hair, she is chatty and affable. 

“The names that I’ve given these are not the final names,” she says as we meander through the space. “So, this is ‘Form Six,’ but in my mind — before I named them — it was just ‘Color.’ This was ‘Flower,’ this was ‘Diptych,’ this is ‘Bed Sheet,’ this was ‘Horizontal,’ this was ‘Squiggly,’” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately I couldn’t keep it like that. ‘Bed Sheet’ wasn’t really flying with the gallery either.”

Far from being universal in shape, each form imitates a topography that Naim has encountered during her scanning process. A process that, in one way or another, Naim has been deeply involved with for the past 10 years.

Initially, it wasn’t so much the scanning electron microscope, or even photography, that Naim was interested in, but the idea of ‘false lines.’ 

“The skin seems as though it separates the body from its internal anatomy and external world, but — in fact — it’s almost like a collision of two energy forces, and on a cellular scale there is no such division,” she explains. “And how you represent that lack of border or boundary is by going down to the cell and having them look like something foreign — like a foreign landscape, or something macro.” 

It is this notion of the non-boundary, the interconnectedness of matter, that drives Naim’s work.

“I like to play with the viewer’s perspective in terms of scale, subject matter and form, but everything must be precise and sterile in order to actually convince someone to shift the way they see or think. A good dancer makes the choreography feel effortless; I try to use that concept in my work,” she says. “If the viewer begins by asking me about the process of how they were built, then that’s my fault. I’ve lost them to rationality rather than abstraction.”